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Canes enter home opener brimming with confidence

by Corey Masisak
RALEIGH -- The first few weeks of this season have been a new experience for the Carolina Hurricanes' players, but Paul Maurice knows what it is like to have to wait for a home game.

The Hurricanes have played seven games away from RBC Center to start the season and will finally have their home opener Wednesday night against the Washington Capitals. When Carolina first moved into this building, the Hurricanes opened the 1999-2000 season with nine road contests before playing host to New Jersey on Oct. 29, 1999, and Maurice was in his first stint as the team's coach.

"It is going to feel a little weird being at home after being gone for so long," defenseman Jamie McBain said. "We're looking forward to it and I'm sure our fans are as well. It is going to be a crazy night here in Raleigh."

Added Maurice: "I guess this year was a little more unusual because of the type of travel. I've been using that word unusual a lot lately."

The uniqueness of Carolina's schedule stems from a season-opening trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, and Helsinki, Finland. After returning to North America, the Hurricanes have played in Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix.

There have been some off days in Raleigh in between, but plenty of nights on the road and long flights.

"It has been pretty hectic. We've been changing time zones a lot -- I think it was something like 10 different time zones. It sure felt like that many," McBain said. "It was a great experience being in all those different places and the experience of the European culture and seeing what that was like. Just being able to gel with the guys in the room -- anytime you are together for that long you are going to build some camaraderie, so it was definitely great in that aspect."

Added forward Erik Cole: "I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a group. When you spend that much time together on the road, you find out who the jokers are in the hotel and pulling pranks [Cole bobbed his head in the direction of Tom Kostopoulos sitting next to him]. You get to know guys on a personal level and there are a lot of practice days in practice rinks all over the place. It was a definitely a beneficial trip, in my opinion."

It was also a successful one for the Hurricanes. After collecting two victories against Minnesota in Helsinki, Carolina also defeated San Jose and Phoenix. There was only one bad loss, a 5-1 decision in Vancouver, despite playing five true road games against five playoff teams from a season ago.

Erik Staal and Jussi Jokinen have led a balanced offense with 6 points each, while 2010 first-round pick Jeff Skinner has proven he can be a key contributor at this level. Goalie Cam Ward is 4-2-0 with a .920 save percentage.

"Even in a couple of the games that we lost, we gave ourselves an opportunity to win -- in two out of the three at least," Cole said.

A better start was considered a must after last season. Carolina lost 16 of the first 18 games in the 2009-10 campaign, including a streak of 14 straight.

The Hurricanes were one of the best teams in the League in the second half of the season, winning 20 of their final 32 games, but the terrible start proved too much to overcome.

"We had an older team that I felt really felt it when we started to lose early on in the season and the pressure mounted very, very quickly," Maurice said. "Now with a younger team going in the opposite direction, a little bit of confidence goes a long way. We're not 6-1, where everybody is overly excited, but we've beaten some good teams in their building and feeling some confidence there.

"We have to be good at home like any team that wants to be in the playoffs and we have to at .500 on the road and we're at that mark now. These first few home games will be important to get that good feeling here."

Going on essentially two long road trips (one to Europe and one to the West Coast) to start the season could prove to be a positive for the young Hurricanes. Players like Skinner, Zac Dalpe and Drayson Bowman have had a chance to mesh with their teammates and see what life on the road in the NHL is like.

Carolina lost veteran stalwarts Rod Brind'Amour and Ray Whitney from last season's club, so it has been a chance for the new core of leaders -- guys like Staal, Tim Gleason and Brandon Sutter -- to establish their roles with the team.

"It reminds me a little of what we had coming out of the lockout," Cole said. "We had some faces that year, but also a new dynamic in the room. Guys like Staal, who had played here for a year and then spent an entire season in the minors, he came back much different than everyone remembered him. I think there a lot of similarities between that season and this season with finding different ways to build chemistry as a group -- not just on the ice but more so away from the rink."

That Hurricanes team went on to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. Carolina might not be considered a championship contender this season, but the Hurricanes expect to be in the playoff hunt.

If nothing else, the quirky start to the season has left them knowing they have more home games left on the schedule than any other team.

"A lot of teams play a little differently at home and on the road. We're very sure that we need to play one game and one style of game to be successful anywhere," Maurice said. "I don't think we're going to fight keeping that energy or emotion down tonight. I think tonight you want to use the home crowd. I think it would be alright to get caught up in the home opener and wanting to put on a show as long as you don't take it to an extreme and do things with the puck you shouldn't because that's the real danger here against Washington -- if you try to get too fancy with them, they will burn you."
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